Burning Bridges On Fire Relations


Anne Arundel County Executive Bobby Neall is playing wit fire.

If he's not careful, he might get burned.

Mr. Neall is trying to rein in the county's 23 volunteer fire companies by taking away some of the things they hold most dear. Their control over state money. Their authority at fire scenes. Their chiefs. Their chiefs' hats.

His fundamental premise is correct. The county has one central fire department, and the volunteers are a part of that -- or at least they should be.

Since the county fire department was created in the mid-1960s, many volunteers have held to the belief that they are still an independent force.

But the way Mr. Neall has tried to manhandle the volunteers into submission is wrong.

Let us travel briefly to Prince George's County, where, like Anne Arundel, volunteers opposed a county fire department. Today, however, Prince George's paid and volunteer forces work together quite successfully.

Why? Because the county has a fire administrator who knows how to lead, not dictate.

"He's an excellent manager," says Prince George's fire spokesman Pete Piringer, who is also a volunteer. "The volunteers operate on ego, and the powers that be recognize that."

Prince George's fire officials understand volunteers in a way Mr. Neall and his fire administrator, Paul Haigley, do not.

"They are a macho, egotistical group, and none of them wants to give up their territory," Mr. Piringer says. "What we have recognized for a long time is that you have to show them they have more of a force and more of a voice through solidarity [with us] than as individual companies."

There's a sense of cooperativeness. "We go to their meetings, they go to our meetings," Mr. Piringer says.

There's also a sense of mutual respect, not only for each other's abilities but for their identities as individual companies.

"We like to think of ourselves as one fire department, but we aren't really," Mr. Piringer says. "We have to make the volunteers buy into it."

Compare that to what has been going in Anne Arundel throughout the Neall administration, and especially since March 16.

That was the day Mr. Haigley eliminated the rank of volunteer chief. The chiefs are now captains, with less authority than the paid captains at fire scenes. All other volunteer officers have been knocked down a notch, too.

This change was necessary, the administration said, because paid captains are better qualified to supervise fire scenes.

No matter the reason, volunteers will resist being pushed down the chain of command. The county is asking for outright rebellion when it tells volunteers -- and the rest of the world -- it thinks they aren't qualified.

Whether or not Mr. Neall really believes the volunteers are less competent firefighters, isn't it unwise to insult them? They are unpaid volunteers, after all, and there's no question that if they start quitting out of frustration or indignation the county is in trouble.

There's also no question Mr. Neall could be in trouble if their communities start rallying behind them. At a County Council hearing last month, the firefighters drew support from chambers of commerce, local churches and community associations.

Even if it was necessary to change the chain of command and make the volunteers answerable to the paid captains, was it necessary to eliminate the volunteer chiefs, historically the top elected officer in the company?

Other counties with strong fire departments have not found it necessary to do this. Mr. Piringer, for one, said the very idea was "inconceivable."

Getting rid of the chiefs might make some sense if Anne Arundel's volunteers had a penchant for defying paid commanders and listening only to their own at fire scenes. But the county concedes that has never happened.

So far, the move seems designed only to yank the volunteers' chains.

Whether the county executive's changes make the fire department more efficient over time remains to be seen.

But at this point, he is a long, long way from having the cohesive, cooperative fire department he says he wants.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad